reviewed by Greta Christina
Better get ready for the Apocalypse, folks. The signs and portents are coming in fast. We've got earthquakes, floods, fires, peace talks in Ireland, Barry Goldwater working for gay rights, the Second Coming of Elvis, and the cancellation of the World Series. But perhaps the most astonishing wonder of all is the release of a well-publicized, mainstream Hollywood movie -- from a Disney subsidiary, no less -- that's smart, well-made, morally complex, politically sophisticated, doesn't insult the intellect of the audience, and doesn't have a nice, simple, easy-answers happy ending. I'm afraid I'm going to have to resort to movie-reviewer hyperbole: Quiz Show may be the best new movie I've seen this year.
Directed by Robert Redford, Quiz Show is based on the national scandal of the late 1950s, in which a Congressional investigation revealed that the TV game show "Twenty-One" was rigged. Certain contestants were given the questions and answers in advance (the ratings went up when the same contestant won for several weeks in a row), and they were coached in dramatic techniques to make the game appear both more exciting and more authentic. As the story begins, Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a working-class Jewish man from Queens, has been champion for six weeks and is on his way out. The producers feel that his popularity has "plateaued," and are looking for a new contestant who will appeal to the American television audience and keep the ratings high.
They find him in Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). A blue-blooded but low-paid English instructor at Columbia University, Van Doren comes from a well-known and respected literary family; his mother Dorothy (Elizabeth Wilson) is a novelist and former editor of The Nation, and his father Mark (Paul Scofield) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. The story unfolds as Van Doren is gradually seduced into the wealth and fame of quiz-show stardom -- and an irate Stempel blows the whistle on "Twenty-One." Stempel's accusations are ignored at first, but Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young, ambitious attorney working for an obscure Congressional oversight bureau, hears about Stempel's claims and begins an investigation of the fraudulent show.
It's a fairly simple story, and unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know how it turns out. (Note: If by some chance you don't know, you may want to skip the rest of this review.) But one of the more remarkable things about Quiz Show is that it stays fresh and surprising, keeping the audience guessing despite the fact that we more or less know how the story ends. It accomplishes this by doing something very intelligent and very rare -- it focuses on the characters rather than the plot. We know that eventually the fraud will be exposed and Van Doren's reputation will be ruined. What we don't know is how the characters will respond to the events as they unfold. The movie is compelling and unpredictable because the characters in it feel like real, genuine, three-dimensional human beings. And real, genuine, three-dimensional human beings are compelling and unpredictable, and they make for good, interesting stories.
The production is stylish and precise, and the acting is superb -- an example of Hollywood professionalism at its best. Ralph Fiennes does a particularly memorable job as Charles Van Doren. You may remember Fiennes as Amon Goeth, the sadistic commander of the Nazi labor camp in Schindler's List. His portrayal of Van Doren in Quiz Show makes it clear that his talents are broad and diverse, and that he is not a man to be typecast. He could have used a bit more work on the American accent; the British inflections sneak through, and at first it's somewhat distracting. But as the story progresses and the character of Van Doren unfolds, this distraction fades entirely into the background. Fiennes portrays Van Doren as an intelligent, competent, responsible adult man in his thirties -- and, at the same time, gives him a sweet, boyish undertone, the feel of a sheltered, innocent, pampered child. His exposure and downfall becomes a metaphor (oh, dear, I used the "M" word, didn't I?) for the betrayal and loss of innocence that millions of Americans experienced when the quiz show fraud was revealed.
But what I find most uniquely appealing about Quiz Show is its content. Beneath the morality play about the temptations of money and fame is a strong subtext about America's peculiar form of class consciousness; our love-hate relationship with the privileged, our mistrustful deference towards intellectuals, the way we simultaneously idealize and belittle the working class. It's a delicate and perceptive examination of a subject that generally tends to get kicked under the sofa. Moreover, I haven't seen a movie this sharply critical of television since Network. And the exploration of anti-Semitism in American society is particularly striking. I've seen damn few Hollywood movies that even acknowledge its existence, much less explore it as a primary theme.
This leads me to the one major problem I have with this film. Quiz Show is, to some extent, guilty of the same anti-Semitism that it condemns. The movie criticizes the TV producers (and American society) for seeing Herbie Stempel as just another pushy, greedy, nutty Jew. And yet Stempel is one of the few really unlikable characters in the movie. He resents the TV producers and seeks vengeance against them, not because he has scruples or moral qualms about the rigged game, but because he thinks he didn't get his fair cut. He's pitiable, but he's not very pleasant; and, more importantly, he isn't imbued with the complexity and humanity that most of the other characters have. In the middle of the film's finely detailed depiction of Van Doren's moral anguish, Stempel is presented as -- well, as a pushy, greedy, nutty Jew.
However, this is mitigated to some extent by the film's portrayal of Dick Goodwin, the leader of the Congressional investigation into the quiz show fraud. Goodwin isn't exactly "the good guy;" one of the things that's most appealing about this movie is that there aren't really "good guys" and "bad guys." Goodwin is too ambitious, too egoistic, and too easily dazzled by Van Doren's gentility and social grace to be a real Hollywood good guy. But if Quiz Show has a hero, Goodwin is it. His determination, his idealism, his dogged investigative work are all portrayed as admirable. But his biting, perceptive, bull's-eye hits on the anti-Semitism that surrounds him are what give him the sharp edge of real gallantry. His is the sort of complex, genuinely human character that makes Quiz Show such a deep and serious pleasure.
Copyright 1994 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.